In today’s missive, I shall cover the sexiest topic in all of fitnessdom:
How do I effectively warm-up for peak performance and injury prevention?
Ok, ok ok…
I know warming up is not really high on the list of “sexiest fitness topics.” But it should be!
In this post, I’m going to break down the most important elements of a great warm-up for effective workouts and healthy happy joints.
Soft Tissue Work
Sometimes called self-myofascial release, “soft tissue” work can be thought of as a form of self-massage. The most common form of soft tissue work is rolling around on a foam roller to apply pressure to your muscles. If you’re looking for more targeted work, you can sub in a lacrosse ball. The most common areas to cry out for soft tissue love include the bottoms of your feet, calves, quads, IT bands, inner thighs, the upper sides of your glutes, lats, and upper back.
Admittedly, there’s some debate as to the effectiveness of soft tissue work for movement prep. And there’s no real consensus on what exactly is happening. The industry’s current best thinking is that applying the right amount of pressure –– not too much, not too little –– sends a signal to your brain that these tissues can loosen up a bit.
At least anecdotally, most people feel better and create some transitory increases in range of motion.
NOTE: While quality time with a foam roller is a valuable addition to your fitness regime, nothing replaces the hands of a skilled massage therapist.
Counter-intuitively, we also start our workouts by calming down –– or “downregulating” –– your nervous system.
This may seem weird since we’re about to workout. But think of it like this: if you’re already pretty wired coming into your workout, you’ll be carrying tension. We want to start by relaxing the body, accessing a fuller joint range of motion and function, and then ramp back up.
Like soft tissue work, there are lots of ways to implement breathwork. At MFF, we utilize drills from the Postural Restoration Institute. At the risk of being offensively reductionistic, here’s a breakdown…
First, we like to get Ninjas into a position where they relax the spinal erectors, specifically in the low back. This is often accomplished, in part, by engaging the hamstrings to tuck the pelvis under. Additionally, we’ll pay careful attention to keep the front of the rib cage from flaring up as we breathe. Finally, we breathe into and expand our rounded lower back.
By getting our spinal erectors –– the big muscles on our back on either side of our spine –– to relax, our nervous system chills out. And then we’re ready to continue on with our warm-up and ramp things back up.
A more contemporary approach to movement prep will prioritize rhythmic, dynamic movements (often called “mobilizations”) over more traditional static, long duration stretches.
Here’s something to consider: some joints and muscles usually need mobility, while others usually need to create more stability. In the former category, we have the calves, quads, hip flexors, thoracic spine, and lats. In the latter category, we have the feet, glutes, core stabilizers, and shoulders; specifically, the smaller muscles inside those joints that keep joints in neutral positions even when the body is moving. We should also pay special attention to moving the hips and shoulders through all three planes of motion: forward and back, side to side, and rotating.
Now, as the staticians say, “all models are wrong, some are useful.” The joint-by-joint approach is incomplete. The body is not quite as simple as I’m making it sound, but for our purposes, it’s a useful framework. By considering the joint-by-joint approach, we can dutifully open up more range of motion in joints that tend to need mobility, and “activate” the smaller stabilizing muscles of joints that tend to need stability.
From there, we can transition into more complex full body movements. And we’ll have an easier time getting into good positions with neutral happy joints surrounded by balanced, supportive stabilizing muscles.
Raise Core Body Temperature
While it’s all well and good to self-massage, breath, and mobilize individual joints, we also need to increase your body temperature. After all, we DO plan to workout. We’re not getting ready for a nap.
Part of our calculation will always include the time available for our session, and integrating full-body dynamic warm-up drills can help support this goal.
For instance, gentle mobilizations of the front of your hip can serve their place. However, doing a series of bodyweight reverse lunges while reaching across your forward knee will give you a bigger bang for the buck. You can totally warm-up your shoulders by doing arm circles. But you’ll notice a bear crawl with rockbacks into a lat stretch will leave your whole body feeling warmer while warming up multiple joints in a coordinated manner.
To be clear, this isn’t an either/or proposition. Based on what your body needs, you’ll likely want some more targeted joint-specific drills AND some more integrated full body movements.
By this point in your warm-up, you should be feeling your body is really coming online. Ideally you’re feeling physically warm and energized. As we transition into the workout proper, it’s a great idea to include drills focused specifically on power: expressing strength with an element of speed.
Examples here include box jumps, skater jumps, and med ball throws. Just remember, this is still part of your warm-up. We’re not looking to crush ourselves. Don’t push to fatigue. Keep the reps and weight lower, and prioritize snappy movement that looks and feels athletic.
For more on power training, see this article HERE.
To state the obvious, this is a very high level overview. You may not be able to touch on all these buckets every time you hit the gym. In fact, you may not even want to.
A good warm-up needs to take into account your particular body, your level of fitness, your goals, how you feel on a given day, and what the workout ahead will entail. And of course, as usual in life, your biggest constraint is time. And since time is the ultimate constraint, you’ll find you get way better bang for your fitness buck than doing a 10-minute jog on the treadmill.
For someone new to training, most of your workout may consist of the above drills. After all, if you’re just getting into (or back into) fitness, you won’t need much to give your body enough of a challenge to have a positive fitness response. Dynamic, full-body warm-up drills can actually provide a fantastic fitness-building stimulus for beginners.
Alternatively, if you’re a more advanced trainee with very specific performance goals and finite time, don’t spend half of your session doing warm-ups. Once you’ve built sufficient capacity, you need to expose your body to more intense inputs to keep seeing progress: heavier weights, more total volume of work, longer durations, etc.
A final note: once you’re done with your “general” warm-up, you’ll still want to do some “specific” warm-ups of the exercises in your workout proper. This will further “grease the groove” of the movement in question and properly prepare your muscles and nervous system. In other words, don’t go from your dynamic warm-up right into a bench press 1-rep max. 🙂
And if you’d like some help in learning about the best warm-up for your body and your goals?
I know a friendly unicorn gym that may be able to help. See below!
PS Brand new to MFF?
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